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Ahmadinejad walks away with a win

His Colum­bia engage­ment gives him what he wants — legit­i­ma­cy — and his hosts look rude to Islam­ic eyes.

by Tim Rut­ten

One of the world’s tru­ly dan­ger­ous men, Iran­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad, left New York a clear win­ner this week, and he can thank the arro­gance of the Amer­i­can acad­e­my and most of the U.S. news medi­a’s stud­ied indif­fer­ence for his vic­to­ry.

If the blood-drenched his­to­ry of the cen­tu­ry just past had taught Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mics one thing, it should have been that the total­i­tar­i­an impulse knows no accom­mo­da­tion with rea­son. You can­not change the total­i­tar­i­an mind through dia­logue or con­ver­sa­tion, because total­i­tar­i­an­ism — how­ev­er inge­nious the super­struc­ture of faux ideas with which it sur­rounds itself — is a crea­ture of the will and not the mind. That’s a large les­son, but what should have made Ahmadine­jad’s appear­ance at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty this week a whol­ly avoid­able deba­cle was the school’s knowl­edge of its own, very spe­cif­ic his­to­ry.

In the 1930s, Colum­bia was run by Nicholas Mur­ray But­ler, to whose name a spe­cial sort of infamy attach­es. But­ler was an out­spo­ken admir­er of Ital­ian fas­cism and of its leader, Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni. The Colum­bia pres­i­dent, who also was in the fore­front of Ivy League efforts to restrict Jew­ish enroll­ment, worked tire­less­ly to build ties between his school and Ital­ian uni­ver­si­ties, as well as with the pow­er­ful fas­cist stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions. At one point, a vis­it­ing del­e­ga­tion of 350 ardent young Black Shirts ser­e­nad­ed But­ler with the fas­cist anthem.

But­ler also was keen to estab­lish con­nec­tions with Nazi Ger­many and its uni­ver­si­ties. In 1933, he invit­ed Hans Luther, Adolf Hitler’s ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States, to lec­ture on the Colum­bia cam­pus. Luther stressed Hitler’s “peace­ful inten­tions” toward his Euro­pean neigh­bors, and, after­ward, But­ler gave a recep­tion in his hon­or. As the emis­sary of “a friend­ly peo­ple,” Luther was “enti­tled to be received with the great­est cour­tesy and respect,” the Colum­bia pres­i­dent said at the time.

It was such a trans­par­ent­ly appalling per­for­mance all around that one of the anony­mous authors of the New York Times’ “Top­ics of the Times” col­umn put tongue in cheek and looked for­ward to the occa­sion when “the Nazi lead­ers will point out that they were all along opposed to any mea­sures capa­ble of being con­strued as unjust to any ele­ment in the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion or as a threat to peace in Europe.”

Arro­gance, though, is invin­ci­ble — even to irony.

Three years lat­er, But­ler sent a del­e­ga­tion of Colum­bia dig­ni­taries to par­tic­i­pate in anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hei­del­berg. That was after Hei­del­berg had purged all the Jew­ish pro­fes­sors from its fac­ul­ty, reformed its cur­ricu­lum accord­ing to Nazi edu­ca­tion­al the­o­ries and pub­licly burned the unap­proved books in its libraries.

It would be inter­est­ing to know if any con­sid­er­a­tion of these events — and all that fol­lowed a decade of engage­ment and dia­logue with fas­cism — occurred before Colum­bia extend­ed a speak­ing invi­ta­tion to a man who hopes to see Israel “wiped off the face of the Earth,” has denied the Holo­caust and is defy­ing the world com­mu­ni­ty in pur­suit of nuclear weapons. Per­haps they did and per­haps that’s part of what moti­vat­ed Lee Bollinger, Columbi­a’s pres­i­dent now, to deliv­er his extra­or­di­nar­i­ly ill-advised wel­com­ing remarks to Ahmadine­jad.

Bollinger clear­ly had an Amer­i­can audi­ence in mind when he denounced the Iran­ian leader to his face as a “cru­el” and “pet­ty dic­ta­tor” and described his Holo­caust denial as designed to “fool the illit­er­ate and the igno­rant.” Bollinger’s remarks may have tak­en him off the hook with his domes­tic crit­ics, but when it came to the inter­na­tion­al media audi­ence that real­ly count­ed, Ahmadine­jad already had car­ried the day. The invi­ta­tion to speak at Colum­bia already had giv­en him some­thing total­i­tar­i­an dem­a­gogues — who are as image-con­scious as Hol­ly­wood stars — always crave: legit­i­ma­cy. Bollinger’s denun­ci­a­tion was icing on the cake, because the con­stituen­cy the Iran­ian leader cares about is scat­tered across an Islam­ic world that val­ues hos­pi­tal­i­ty and its cour­te­sies as core social virtues. To that audi­ence, Bollinger looked stun­ning­ly ill-man­nered; Ahmadine­jad dig­ni­fied and restrained.

Back in Tehran, Mohsen Mir­dama­di, a lead­ing Iran­ian reformer and Ahmadine­jad oppo­nent, said Bollinger’s blis­ter­ing remarks “only strength­ened” the pres­i­dent back home and “made his rad­i­cal sup­port­ers more deter­mined,” Accord­ing to an Asso­ci­at­ed Press report, “Many Ira­ni­ans found the com­ments insult­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly because in Iran­ian tra­di­tions of hos­pi­tal­i­ty, a host should be polite to a guest, no mat­ter what he thinks of him. To many, Ahmadine­jad looked like the vic­tim, and hard-lin­ers praised the pres­i­den­t’s calm demeanor dur­ing the event, say­ing Bollinger was spout­ing a ‘Zion­ist’ line.”

All of this was bad enough, but the almost will­ful refusal of com­men­ta­tors in the Amer­i­can media to pro­vide their audi­ences with insight into just how sin­is­ter Ahmadine­jad real­ly is com­pound­ed the prob­lem. There are a cou­ple of rea­sons for the medi­a’s gen­er­al refusal to engage with rad­i­cal Islam­ic revival­ists, like Ahmadine­jad. He belongs to a par­tic­u­lar­ly aggres­sive school of rad­i­cal Shi­ite Islam, the Haghani, which lives in expec­ta­tion of the immi­nent com­ing of the Mad­hi, a kind of Islam­ic mes­si­ah, who will bring peace and jus­tice — along with uni­ver­sal Islam­ic rule — to the entire world. Seri­ous mem­bers of this school — and Ahmadine­jad, who was a bril­liant uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, is a very seri­ous mem­ber — believe they must act to speed the Mahdi’s com­ing. “The wave of the Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion” would soon “reach the entire world,” he has promised.

As a fun­da­men­tal­ly sec­u­lar insti­tu­tion, the Amer­i­can press always has had a hard time com­ing to grips with the fact that Islamists like the Iran­ian pres­i­dent mean what they say and that they real­ly do believe what they say they believe.

Final­ly, there’s the fact that the neo­con­ser­v­a­tive rem­nants clus­tered around Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney are beat­ing the drums for a pre­emp­tive mil­i­tary action against Iran before it becomes a nuclear nation, as North Korea already has, there­by con­strain­ing U.S. pol­i­cy in north­west Asia. After being duped by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion into help­ing pave the way for the dis­as­trous war in Iraq, few in the Amer­i­can media now are will­ing to take the Iran prob­lem on because they don’t want to be com­plic­it in anoth­er mil­i­tary mis­ad­ven­ture.

Fair enough — but that anx­i­ety does­n’t exempt the press from being real­is­tic about who Ahmadine­jad real­ly is and the dan­ger he real­ly does pose to all around him.


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